Amtrak is back at the drawing board with plans for a fencing project along the Hudson River. Railroad officials say the project is to improve safety and will include preserving public access to the river. Elected officials and environmentalists are concerned about just how much access will be included, and what it will look like.
In 2019, Amtrak temporarily withdrew a 2018 proposal for fencing and gates along its rights of way at spots in Columbia and Dutchess Counties. Now, the railroad is working on a draft plan that stakeholders like Scenic Hudson’s Jeff Anzevino worry will expand the 2018 proposal.
“We don’t want to let up," says Anzevino. "While Amtrak is working on their plan we will continue to engage the community, come up with new ideas, make proposals to get people across the track, and along the track, in a safe manner.”
Anzevino is Poughkeepsie-based Scenic Hudson’s director of Land Use Advocacy.
“In late 2019, Scenic Hudson along with the municipalities between Poughkeepsie and Rensselaer created the Hudson River Access Plan. The plan identifies places where people are using the river, how they’re using it and the places where they don’t have access now but want access,” Anzevino says. “And the plan identifies location where new access is needed. It identifies sites for demonstration projects where people can be able to cross the railroad with modern gate technology at grade level, without requiring large overpasses, and comes up with a whole series of recommendations for how to reduce risk without reducing additional public access to the river.”
He says the recommendations along Amtrak’s Empire Corridor are a win-win. As for Amtrak’s involvement in the plan:
“Amtrak has not been, has not responded to us,” says Anzevino. “We invited them to participate in this plan. They did not choose to participate.”
An Amtrak spokesman says Amtrak and the New York State Department of Transportation are still in the planning phases of the project to fence along the Hudson Line. He says a final cost is still not identified and that Amtrak and DOT have communicated and met with town supervisors on several occasions. Once a draft plan is finalized, Amtrak will share it with town supervisors, but the timeline has been delayed due to COVID. He says when the planning process is complete, Amtrak officials will develop a timeline.
In late May, Democratic Congressmen Paul Tonko, Antonio Delgado and Sean Patrick Maloney wrote to Amtrak’s President and CEO William Flynn requesting that Amtrak work with state, county and local stakeholders to develop a program that protects public safety while maintaining community access to the Hudson River. They urge Amtrak’s project staff to read Scenic Hudson’s access plan in full before continuing to reformulate fencing and gate locations and adjust the proposal accordingly. Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro supports both the congressmen’s letter and Scenic Hudson’s plan.
“Well we’ve made perfectly clear that Amtrak ought not be able to move forward with fencing or the development of severing that connection of the Hudson River, certainly not without a very open and public process,” says Molinaro. “And, quite frankly, under the circumstances, this entire concept should be frozen in time.”
“The congressional delegation really gets it. They understand that access to the river is key to the economic future of residents in these communities,” says Anzevino. “And, in fact, something we’re realizing now in this period of pandemic is that access to nature and access to the river, parkland and open space is more important than ever.”
And he gives an example of what he earlier termed a demonstration project – in Tivoli, in Dutchess County.
“There is a riverfront park in Tivoli. The land was sold by CSX to the Village of Tivoli with an agreement that when the property would be developed at the park, an overpass would be needed there. That overpass is something that’s just too expensive, it would not accommodate people trying to get canoes or kayaks across the tracks to the river and would block a lot of residents’ view,” says Anzevino. “So in our research we found that in other places — California and Illinois — the railroad, Amtrak, has ways to get people across the track at grade without requiring these 25-foot overpasses, and we’d like to see these techniques used there as well.”
“Access to the Hudson River is a protected right. It’s protected under federal and state law. We have spent decades not only fighting to clean up the Hudson River, but to create access. And, quite frankly, Amtrak has neither made the case that what they’re suggesting meets some true safety concern nor have they adequately engaged with municipal leaders and community stakeholders,” Molinaro says. “So we’re supporting Scenic Hudson’s effort, our members of Congress’ effort, to ensure that there’s public investment, public involvement and I’d say, right now, it’s best if the entire concept be put on hold as we all focus on other issues in our community that demand both the public’s attention and, by the way, preclude the public’s ability to truly participate in the process.”
The Amtrak spokesman says railroad property is private property, and it is against the law and considered trespassing to enter on to railroad property at locations that are not public access areas without proper permission. He says not only it is illegal, but it creates a safety hazard that fencing would help improve.